Saturday, April 5, 2008

Translexical Translation

This procedure consists of translating a source text into the vocabulary of a drastically different form of discourse while retaining the text’s underlying meaning. The prose poem below only loosely qualifies as an example; in it, each question asked by the narrator of Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” is rephrased as its own answer, and each answer begins with the kind of ass-covering probabilistic phrase used by U.S. spy agencies to describe potential threats in their National Intelligence Estimates—e.g. “we judge with moderate confidence that, etc.” (The opening phrases of each line in this particular piece were lifted from the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran’s nuclear capabilities.)

The resulting passage doesn’t shed any new light on Prufrock’s character, but the easy fit between the National Intelligence Estimate’s phrasing and the chronic uncertainty of Prufrock’s voice hints at an institutional angst within the CIA, NSA, et al. When knowledge seems shifty and elusive, endless self-questioning results, for intelligence agencies no less than for introspective narrators of modernist poems.

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The National Intelligence Estimate of J. Alfred Prufrock

I judge with high confidence that I do not dare disturb the universe.

I assess with high confidence that I should not presume.

I assess with moderate confidence that I should not begin to spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways. I continue to assess with moderate-to-high confidence that I should not presume.

I continue to assess with low confidence that it is perfume from a dress that makes me so digress. I judge with moderate confidence that I should not then presume. I judge with moderate confidence that I should not begin.

I recognize the possibility that I should say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets and watched the smoke that rises from the pipes of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows.

I assess with high confidence that I will not, after tea and cakes and ices, have the strength to force the moment to its crisis.

I do not have sufficient intelligence to judge confidently that it would have been worth it, after all, after the cups, the marmalade, the tea, among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me; that it would have been worth while, to have bitten off the matter with a smile, to have squeezed the universe into a ball to roll it toward some overwhelming question, to say: "I am Lazarus, come from the dead come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all"--if one, settling a pillow by her head, should say: "That is not what I meant at all. That is not it, at all."

It is difficult to specify whether it would have been worth it, after all, would have been worth while, after the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets, after the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor--and this, and so much more?—a growing amount of intelligence indicates it is impossible to say just what I mean! But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen: it is difficult to specify whether it would have been worth while if one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl, and turning toward the window, should say: "That is not it at all, that is not what I meant, at all."

I assess with moderate confidence that I will not part my hair behind.

I judge with moderate confidence that I do not dare to eat a peach.

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